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Advising Atheists (Loser Letters) 3

posted by Scot McKnight

LoserLetters.jpgI’m really enjoying the new book, The Loser Letters , by Mary Eberstadt. It’s fiction; it’s satire; it’s the attempt by a recent atheist convert to explain the problems of atheism to the upper level echelon of new atheists. 

One of the elements I’ve observed is that atheists tend to be much better at deconstructing religious faith than they are are responding to criticisms of their beliefs/convictions. But critique of another’s ideas doesn’t establish one’s own. When theists put atheists into a corner about one or more of their ideas, atheists can learn how difficult it is to prove the view. How, for instance, does one prove there is no god? It is easier to criticize the beliefs of theists than prove the tenets of atheism. And it does little good for the debate to return fire by attacking the theists. Eberstadt’s points deserve refutation by proving them wrong or by establishing the contrary.
Letter three in Eberstadt’s book is about good works, and her fictional letter writer, A.F. Christian pleads for three things:
1. Focus on the bad works of Christians and pastors and the Catholic Church and the leaders. There’s plenty to feast on there.
2. Avoid getting into discussions of the good works of Christians, for their record is amazingly good.
3. Avoid getting into discussions of the charity work of atheists, because the story is not nice. 

A deadly quote: “we Atheists are much better off emphasizing what the other side has done wrong rather than emphasizing anything we Brights have done right” (40).
For the bad, she mentions Catholic priests and liberal Protestant offerings. Kooks like Warren Jeffs.
Why do this? “because the actual evidence for claiming that Atheism will do as much good in the world as Christianity and other religions is embarrassingly against us” (42). What, she ponders, can the atheists say about the godless atheism at work in Nazism and Stalinism? And claiming they were religious underneath all that godless violence is like thinking underneath Paula Abdul you will find a fat bald male teetotaler (her analogy).
The fact is, the Dulls take care of the sick and care for the poor and build hospitals and their “god” tells them to, while our theories and sciences teach us that such hospitals don’t have Darwin’s name on them and we, the Atheists, “don’t want the kind of world in which Nature’s rejects, the sick and the old and the frail of any sort, flourish anyway” (51).
In brief: “their highest authority, Loser, tells them to care for the sick and weak, whereas ours, Nature, tells us the opposite” (51).
Tell Hitchens, she says, to knock it off about Mother Teresa.


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Matt

posted March 31, 2010 at 3:23 am


Hi, Scot.
This is a fascinating series. What does the author mean by this, though:
3. Avoid getting into discussions of the charity work of atheists, because the story is not nice.
Matt



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Dennis Boot

posted March 31, 2010 at 3:47 am


Atheism is either self defeating, or has an inbuilt defence mechanism, when you start talking about “good works” for example. What is “good” in the first place? what is the standard of what is good?



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Chris Hall

posted March 31, 2010 at 4:27 am


Matt, what the author is trying to say is that atheists lack a decent record of charity work therefore by implication atheists are not nice people like Christians.
Scot, you say “But critique of another’s ideas doesn’t establish one’s own”, this is all too true and I wish creationists would understand that by trying to disprove evolution will in no way validate the creationist’s alternative. This criticism really can’t be solely laid at the door of atheists.
“How, for instance, does one prove there is no god?”, another good point, I can’t as it’s impossible to prove a negative, for instance can you prove the universe wasn’t created by 57 blue elves all called Kevin? It’s not up to me to prove the non-existence of gods, it’s up to you to provide evidence for them – and the evidence I have been presented with over the years is woefully inadequate to convince me.
Although I’ve not read the book, only this series of chapter reviews and the excerpt at Amazon, from what I can glean from these sources Eberstadt seems to think that atheists are some kind of organised group of people who look up to and take orders from Hitchens and Dawkins, “the upper level echelon of new atheists”. I do not look up to these people and I do not take instruction from them. I simply lack a belief in gods.
Eberstadt, for someone who is supposed to be so intelligent, seems to have some very odd and easily shown to be wrong ideas; for instance atheists are a group of evil people who don’t give charity, when I give to charity I’m never asked what my religious views are so how do people know? And at least when an atheist does give to charity it must be for altruistic reasons rather than trying to build up Brownie points for the afterlife, which is an accusation that could be leveled at a religious person.
Eberstadt thinks that the truth is a popularity contest (“Why do 99.99999 % of humans believe in God?”) and I love her idea that the Christian God must be true because no one would have made up one so demanding. But here’s a hint Mary, a wishy-washy god wouldn’t be much good at putting fear and intimidation (and ultimately control) into the population. I simply don’t understand her comments about sexual morality, if Dawkins told me to stop using contraceptives or not to have sex with someone because that person is the same sex as me, I would tell him to get lost, does she honestly think people like me lack a moral compass so much that I have to have my life micro-managed to such a level?
All in all, what I think that Eberstadt fails to understand is that all, and I mean all, that atheists have in common is a lack of belief in gods. You could have replaced the word “atheist” with “people with red hair” and the whole thing would have made the same amount of sense.



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Scot McKnight

posted March 31, 2010 at 6:29 am


Chris Hall, thanks. I don’t think Eberstadt thinks atheists take orders from Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. But, her focus is to address their form of atheism, the new atheism (a common enough expression for the rise of vocal atheism in the last decade or so). She clearly never says they are “evil” as you say; she says their track record on good works and charity doesn’t measure up to that of the “Dulls.”
On the moral compass point, stick with the letters because later she gets into that issue.



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whoschad

posted March 31, 2010 at 7:41 am


Chris Hall, the point isn’t that ‘atheists take orders from the upper echelon, and THAT’S why they don’t do as much charity’. The point is: Atheists don’t do as much charity in general. According to the statistics, they do much, much LESS than everybody else. They just don’t. That’s just the way it is. I know you can’t seem to see a correlation between the two, but many others can. Just because you haven’t been personally polled on the matter doesn’t mean that no polls on the subject exist. You can’t just stick your head in the ground. You have to grin and bear it.
When you say that you could substitute the word ‘atheist’ for ‘redhead’, I think it shows that you’re not quite getting the point here. Unless you have access to some sort of statistics that show that redheads as a group, are just as uncharitable as atheists are. But I’ve never heard of anything like that.



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Ray Ingles

posted March 31, 2010 at 8:40 am


Whoschad –

Atheists don’t do as much charity in general. According to the statistics, they do much, much LESS than everybody else. They just don’t.

Let’s see the cites on that. How was ‘atheism’ determined? How were charitable contributions counted? How were the samples selected? What controls were used? How many studies are we talking about, anyway, and by whom were they conducted?



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Ray Ingles

posted March 31, 2010 at 8:47 am


How, for instance, does one prove there is no god?

Depends. Of the religions that I’ve examined, I’ve found them to be logically inconsistent. I’m an atheist in the specific and an agnostic in general. I can’t prove that no god of any type could possibly exist, but that’s a bar nobody is asked to clear in any other area of human experience, so I don’t feel guilty about that.
No, the burden really is – has to be – on the one making the positive existence claim.



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Derek

posted March 31, 2010 at 8:48 am


What does any of this have to do with whether or not a god or gods exist, anyway?



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Ray Ingles

posted March 31, 2010 at 8:50 am


What, she ponders, can the atheists say about the godless atheism at work in Nazism and Stalinism?

And here’s another example of Eberstadt’s shallowness.
Hitler wasn’t an atheist. He sure wasn’t a traditional Christian, of course, but he was sort of a neo-Pagan quasi-Christian who explicitly rejected evolution and based his racism on the idea that the ‘races’ had been created separately. The Holocaust owed far more to the virulent strain of anti-Semitism that Martin Luther embraced and fostered. That was certainly the motivation for the majority who actually carried out the crimes in person.
(As to the Communist states under Stalin and Mao – they also explicitly rejected neo-Darwinian evolution and embraced – and enforced – Lysenkoism instead. The resulting crop failures when reality failed to match up to “worker’s science” killed a huge fraction – possibly the majority – of the millions who died under those regimes. Ironically, the people under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao would have been better off if their leaders had accepted neo-Darwinian evolution.)



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Chris Weimer

posted March 31, 2010 at 8:51 am


I also smell something fishy with whoschad’s “studies”, especially given that Bill Gates, George Soros, and Warren Buffet, all three huge philanthropists, are all atheists.
Chris Weimer



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Ray Ingles

posted March 31, 2010 at 8:53 am


And Derek gets to the primary point before I could. What if atheism had terrible moral consequences? Why would that have anything to do with whether or not it were true?
I’m quoting C.S. Lewis a lot here lately, but he really did hate this kind of argument. In “The Screwtape Letters”, he has his devil advocate such things: “Believe this, not because it’s true, but for some other reason. That’s the game.”



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Scot McKnight

posted March 31, 2010 at 8:55 am


Derek,
Eberstadt’s point is to advise the new atheists on finding themselves in arguments about good works. Focus on Christians’ bad works; avoid their good works, because they have lots of them; and, she suggests, the new atheists need to avoid the game of comparison because their reputation for good works doesn’t match up.
So, the argument is tangential when it comes to proof, but this isn’t about proof for God but an argument about how to proceed as new atheists in trying to convince others of atheism.
The opening stuff about atheism is something I’ve observed. The most common tactic is to disprove the beliefs of theists and not to provide a positive construction for their case. That’s what I see anyway. It seems to me Eberstadt is in part affirming that perception.



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Scot McKnight

posted March 31, 2010 at 8:57 am


Frankly, I think the quotes above from p. 51 are strong.



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whoschad

posted March 31, 2010 at 9:01 am


Ray Ingles, are you claiming no such studies have been done? Or are you saying that if you actually see the results, then you will accept them? It kind of sounds like you wouldn’t believe it, even in the face of the contrary evidence. I admire your faith.
Not that it will do any good, but here are some links:
http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/102-atheists-and-agnostics-take-aim-at-christians
http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2682730&page=1
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3647/is_200310/ai_n9340592/?tag=content;col1



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Ray Ingles

posted March 31, 2010 at 9:07 am


Scot –

The most common tactic is to disprove the beliefs of theists and not to provide a positive construction for their case. That’s what I see anyway. It seems to me Eberstadt is in part affirming that perception.

I don’t understand why this would be at all surprising. The only thing that atheists would – by definition – have in common is not believing in religion. Why wouldn’t you expect to find atheists most commonly explain why they don’t believe what theists believe?
Coming from an evangelical religion, maybe that’s surprising to you. Christians devote a lot of time trying to figure out how to be persuasive about their particular viewpoint. But that’s no necessary part of atheism – why expect to find such an attitude there?



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RJS

posted March 31, 2010 at 9:14 am


Ray,
But the tactics are a bit like the tactics taken in the creationism, ID argument … and are the kind of argument that Lewis “hated” as described above.
There is no attempt to understand the arguments for theism in the strong form, but a significant attempt to undermine and debunk the weakest arguments and thus dismiss the rest. Certainly this is the “meat,” if one could call it that, of Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion.”
If we are on a search for truth we must always wrestle with the strong form of opposing ideas.



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Ray Ingles

posted March 31, 2010 at 9:38 am


whoschad –

Ray Ingles, are you claiming no such studies have been done?

No. I’m, y’know, asking you to cite the studies you refer to. Like I, y’know, said and all.

Or are you saying that if you actually see the results, then you will accept them? It kind of sounds like you wouldn’t believe it, even in the face of the contrary evidence. I admire your faith.

Um, wow. That’s quite a leap. I’m looking over the links you gave now – I’ve some concerns, but I haven’t seen major methodological issues yet. (Though I’m still trying to figure out how the sample selection was done, which is always the trickiest and most perilous part of setting up a study.)
I haven’t accused you of intellectual cowardice. I’ve simply asked you to back up your claims. Any chance you could extend me similar courtesy? Pretty please?



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Ray Ingles

posted March 31, 2010 at 9:46 am


RJS –

There is no attempt to understand the arguments for theism in the strong form, but a significant attempt to undermine and debunk the weakest arguments and thus dismiss the rest. Certainly this is the “meat,” if one could call it that, of Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion.”

Hate to sound like PDS, but can you give an example of a “strong form” argument not addressed by Dawkins?



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Scot McKnight

posted March 31, 2010 at 9:51 am


Ray, yes, I can. When he talks about the OT view of God he doesn’t have any counterbalancing comments from the gracious side; he doesn’t bother to ask how the great interpreters and theologians have dealt with this (hardly new to any Bible reader); nor does he bother to ask how the theologians have understood the doctrine of Scripture and how God speaks and meets humans via Scripture. No one is flat-footed about it as Dawkins.



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Joan Ball

posted March 31, 2010 at 9:52 am


As a person who spent the first 30 years of my life as an atheist and seven years exploring the notion of a higher power in alcohol recovery, I find this conversation thought-provoking, particularly when it comes to an outcomes-based look at what atheism, agnosticism or deism bring to the table.
I have met atheists in recovery who serve others with abandon: answering phones in the middle of the night, taking people to rehab, spending hours in coffee shops, church basements and community centers sharing their experience, strength and hope with others in order to give back to others what was freely given to them. I have also met atheists in recovery or elsewhere who would do anything to serve their own agendas, needs and desires.
I have met people of faith in church and elsewhere who are the “real deal”. Who have devoted their lives to service to others and to pursuing transformation into more loving, caring and sacrificial beings. They follow Christ (or others) in pursuit of holiness or enlightenment or service to God and others. I have also met people of faith who would do anything to serve their own agendas, needs and desires.
Neither of these scenarios advance the cause of proving or disproving the existence of God – which is fine with me, since I generally keep away from what I perceive to be an impossible exercise. I did not ask for this faith, nor did I actively seek it. Grace is grace and I became an unlikely recipient. That said, I also believe in free will. I did not decide on this faith any more than I decided that the sky is blue. When it came it just was. That said, I also believe in free choice -even when that choice is atheism. Anything less would make my faith a path to captivity rather than a journey to freedom. Despite its challenges and the hardships that come with transformation, I have been blessed to experience my journey as the latter.



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Ray Ingles

posted March 31, 2010 at 10:31 am


Scot, if I may, I’d like to point out that you’re claiming that a case has been made. You’re not actually presenting such a case to me, or giving me a hint where to find the cases of the “great interpreters and theologians”.
I honestly don’t think Dawkins is unfair, here. It is very hard to see how the Author Of The Universe, full of perfect love, could be responsible for passages like Samuel 15:3 or Joshua 10:40 (or even Deuteronomy 25:11-12). The only remotely convincing cases that I’ve seen essentially have to argue that God didn’t inspire them: http://www.randalrauser.com/pgm-download_media.php?name=Rauser11.1.pdf



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ed

posted March 31, 2010 at 10:32 am


A the worlds religions are just old myths made up by ignorant peoples to describe the world around them. Science has proven that the world can be understood by reason. Some people will choose superstition and ignorance. Others choose reason. Whether a god exists is really not at issue with most people. What is is the question of whether there is life after death. The answer to a reasonable person is no. I did not exist before I was born and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to assume that my being is finite. What the superstitious call a soul is no more than the functioning of the human brain. A functioning that ceasses after death. Superstitions provide comfort to those people who are ultimately unable to come to grips with that fact of life. Faily tales can be very comforting.



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ChrisB

posted March 31, 2010 at 10:32 am


I think some readers are misunderstanding what this chapter is about.
It doesn’t claim atheism is false because atheists are less charitable. The author is simply responding to the attacks from the new atheists that all religion — and especially Christianity — is hopelessly, irredeemably evil.
She’s saying those who make those charges 1) ignore the good Christianity has done and 2) ignore the good atheists don’t do while 3) focusing on the rare but high-profile bad that has been done in the name of Christianity.



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RJS

posted March 31, 2010 at 11:06 am


Ray,
The point is not whether Dawkins is right or wrong.
The point is the nature of the kind of argument he makes. Scot and I ran a chapter by chapter discussion on his book and it left me with the same kind of annoyance that I felt reading Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell.” Meyer was not fair to the science or the scientists in trying to make his case. Dawkins does not do justice to the deep thinking found in the history of the church or the reality of christian theology in making his case – he doesn’t even do justice to nonchristian philosophy or to science and the diversity of opinions in science.



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Ray Ingles

posted March 31, 2010 at 11:14 am


RJS, if either you or Scot would link to the series you’re talking about, I’d be happy to look it over. Or should I just put “jesus creed dawkins” into Google and hope for the best?



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Chris Hall

posted March 31, 2010 at 11:24 am


whoschad, my point was not that people with red hair were uncharitable like atheists, my point was that all atheists have in common is that they lack a belief in gods a lot like the fact that red heads have only red headedness in common (I’ve reread what I wrote above and I could have maybe worded it differently). As I said I haven’t read all these letters but Eberstadt seems to be lumping all atheists together as a group that act and behave in the same way, and this just isn’t the case.
This just seems to be another work in a larger body with the aim of dehumanising atheists; look what Hitler and Stalin did (the facts be damned) therefore all atheists aren’t to be trusted.



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Alan K

posted March 31, 2010 at 3:15 pm


ed #22
Have you ever fallen in love? It’s the most unreasonable thing in the world but at the same time the most human.



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Larry

posted March 31, 2010 at 3:23 pm


I believe it was Newbigin who observed that in a post-modern context the only valid apologetic is beauty. This applies to Christians as well as atheists, you cannot “reason” someone into either belief or non-belief, which is why these discussions never amount to anything and go on and on and on. This is where the giving to charity and the rest of these issues come in, it is not about proving one side or the other is correct, that is something that is outside the bounds of reason or proving, it is about living a beautiful life and having your life truly reflect what you believe. That is how you convince somebody of the truth of your world-view.



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Marcus

posted March 31, 2010 at 11:39 pm


The ?fact of life? that Ed and many like him miss, is that science proves nothing. Unless one can know for certain that the triad of ?observation, thesis and testing? includes every variable possible, the conclusions can never be certain. Therefore, putting complete trust in such a system amounts to nothing more than a blind ?leap of faith?. Indeed, science hides the fact that its tenets are based on assumptions and faith. It?s not unfair to say that it takes more faith to trust an atheistic science system than it does to put your faith in Christianity. Unlike such science, Christianity does not hide its faith requirement. It is upfront and honest. The faith of Christianity is definitely not a ?blind faith?. It is a faith based on reason, not vague assumptions or fairy tale. It begs to be explored! In fact the father of modern science, Galileo and others like him, were men of faith, driven by their belief in a personal God/creator, who endowed all men with the gift of reason to explore the wonders of the creator?s handiwork, thus establishing the basis for real science. Galileo?s belief in this was so strong that he stood against the Church of Rome?s antiquated Aristotelian view of the cosmos to proclaim a better understanding. Regarding the article…I believe the point is that the new aggressive atheism, which continuously levels erroneous, unfounded charges against Christianity, needs to look in the mirror and stop fooling itself. It?s charges led by Dawkins, that God is ?a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully? – Richard Dawkins, (The God Delusion) and the empty statement echoed by many atheists that Christianity has been a causal agent of war and violence through the ages and thus is inherently dangerous ? are simply not true. In actuality nothing is farther from the truth. Dawkin?s list of adjectives easily applies to Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Mao Se Tung, Castro, or Che but not to God. Truth be known the problem is not with God or Christianity but with the heart of man. The tenets of Christianity when allowed to change man?s heart and thought, produce goodness, kindness, peace and prosperity, which is why it’s track record of ?good? is so astounding when examined fairly. These things are only possible because Christianity is based on the revealed wisdom of God who “is” the personification of truth and whose principles actually work when applied. That is not to say that atheists cannot love goodness, peace and kindness but these attributes cannot be credited to atheism itself because they are attributes inherent in the image of God which is stamped on every human being, its detectability being linked to the degree that image has become tarnished. Atheism?s logical conclusion in contrast, rejects the notion of God, substitutes “man” (limited knowledge) for God (who is Truth) and thereby essentially elevates himself as a god. This formula is doomed as natural man?s overall understanding of truth and morality is tarnished due to rebellion against God revealed truth. Hence the leadership of natural man, under his own banner ? ultimately leads to chaos. Although wrong, it is true that some godless leaders have at times corrupted the Christian church leading to crimes against fellow man, but such corruptions do not represent all Christianity as some suppose. Neither are those crimes the result of Christianity or its teachings but rather the contrary ideas of men not yielded to it. It is also true that a comparison of acts committed by godless church leaders (as bad as some of them were) pale in consequence and number when compared to the heinous atrocities committed by the leaders of modern godless ideologies that evolved out of the works of Darwin. Darwinian thought applied to the political realm produced poisonous fruit in men like Marx, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Che Guevara and others, resulting in unparalleled atrocities of murder, genocides, medical experimentations, unlawful imprisonments, confiscations, executions, beatings, theft, wars and every manner of unthinkable abuses perpetrated on mankind. Switching topics to the realm of business, Many today attempt to blame the uncontrolled greed of wealthy business owners on Christian thought but here again nothing is further from the truth. The tenets of Christianity teach responsibility and good work ethic, but are geared towards ?giving? not ?taking?. In contrast, the removal of God from our culture coupled with the acceptance of Darwinian thought now applied in the business world has produced ?industrial evolution? which embraces the concept of the ?survival of the fittest?. It understands little about ?giving? and a lot about ?taking?. In such a business world greed, hostile takeovers and power business moves at anyone?s cost but you own are completely justified. There is no need for businesses to feel responsibility to the community it operates in as their sole purpose is to survive to make profits. Responsibility to the community would only be a drain on the bottom line. I could go on with lots more, but the basic gist is the charges used by atheists don?t hold water when truthfully scrutinized. Some may attempt to dismiss this type of discussion by claiming this to be another dehumanization of atheists but I say ?not so?, especially given the widespread, unrelenting attacks of the new aggressive atheist movement that desires to vilify all of Christianity. Dawkins and his movement are the ones deluded and need to be challenged with truth.



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